In the first season of Game of Thrones, Varys lays out the central conundrum of the series with a riddle for Tyrion, concluding that: "Power resides where men believe it resides."

Over the course of the series we've seen power come from the birthright of the Baratheons, from Daenerys' moral right as the "Breaker of Chains", from prophecies of "the Prince that was Promised", back to birthrights of the Targaryens, and finally to Tyrion's idea that power comes from stories and we just have to tell new ones.

Is power just a trick? A shadow on a wall? And what about all those dragon-related war crimes? We asked Victoria University political scientist Xavier Marquez.

How does Varys' idea tie into the political science theories on legitimacy?

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Conleth Hill is Lord Varys in Game of Thrones. Photo / Supplied
Conleth Hill is Lord Varys in Game of Thrones. Photo / Supplied

Yeah definitely, that's the basic idea of legitimacy in social science: How do you get people to do things? You can follow someone because of belief in religious authority or the traditional authority of the king, or because of some prospect of future exchange. There is no one answer to that. It's going to be different from time to time, place to place.

If enough people strongly believe that only [royalty] have a claim to the throne then genealogy becomes really important. But those things can shift quite suddenly. Perhaps somebody shows up and seizes power through other means. I think that's a theme in the books, how the basis of legitimacy is broken by various interventions.


Why were hereditary monarchies so widespread in the real world?

You had hereditary succession in families and in other contexts as well. It was a natural principle of organisation that people already recognised. It had a kind of supporting structure to it.

Historically it might have come about because it was a means of avoiding conflict. Monarchy that established a norm of hereditary succession tended to last more than monarchies that had elected elements or some other form of succession.

Dr Xavier Marquez Head of School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations at Victoria University. Photo / Supplied
Dr Xavier Marquez Head of School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations at Victoria University. Photo / Supplied

Why did hereditary monarchies result in fewer conflicts?

In elected monarchies, you often have a very strong aristocracy. So if somebody they don't like is elected, they can mobilise military force or create conflict in other ways.

Some elected monarchies did seem to have solved that problem. The Holy Roman Empire (which dates from the Middle Ages) lasted for a long time, and part of that was because the Austrian Habsburgs monopolise the pool of candidates. Even though it was an "elected monarchy", the monarch always came from the same family!

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Whereas in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth [in the 16th century], the aristocracy was a lot stronger relative to the king. They limited his powers, but when time came for succession, they were often unable to agree on candidates.


What happened when they were unable to agree?

Oh, they would come to blows. It did last for a while, but eventually it was dissolved, parts [of the country were absorbed by] the Russian empire. Historians reckoned that it has something to do with weakness of the monarchy.

It's a big collective action problem: How do you select a king that's acceptable to everyone? Everyone has some ability to mobilise force and therefore they're unwilling to let their own claims go.

Daenerys reduces King's Landing to ashes in a dramatic, heart-stopping episode of Game of Thrones. Photo / Supplied
Daenerys reduces King's Landing to ashes in a dramatic, heart-stopping episode of Game of Thrones. Photo / Supplied

Your research focuses on authoritarianism and dictatorships. In the penultimate episode of the season, Daenerys devastates King's Landing with her dragon and lets her troops sack the city. What role does violence play in dictators maintaining their hold on power, and how does it affect their legitimacy?

People engage in punishment or violence partly to show that they are strong, so that other people decide, yes, these people are strong enough to punish or to engage in this kind of violence so we might as well go with them rather than the others.

Sometimes that the violence is about complicity as well. You want people to join you in violence, so that they can't easily switch back to the previous ruler or regime. [During the Chinese Revolution] Chinese Communists will come to a village and engage in trial of landowners and have some of the peasants join in [to carry out] the punishment, so that the blood is on everybody's hands.


Is using violence inherently stable or unstable?

From the point of view of a rational actor, you don't want to use more violence than you need, because you are going to get backlash from people. One problem that dictators have is that they don't have a way to accurately gauge how much violence to use.

In the case of Iraq, Saddam Hussein often didn't know enough about who was opposing his rule to punish accurately. So the regime engaged in collected punishment because they couldn't identify accurately who was an opponent and who wasn't. That in turn produced resentment that made his rule unstable.

If they didn't punish, people who were dissatisfied with [the regime] could organise and potentially overthrow them. So they have to use force to some extent, but it is often difficult to gauge how much force to use.

Peter Dinklage played Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones. Photo / Supplied
Peter Dinklage played Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones. Photo / Supplied

Do dictators ever make that calculation well?

There's a famous passage in Machiavelli where he gives an example of using cruelty well. There's disorder in a region of Italy, this person takes charge and there's brutal punishment of the ringleaders. Machiavelli praises this as the right thing to do: You do it quickly, you do it spectacularly, so that it's visible and you kill all the people you need to kill, and then you restore order. That's the kind of calculation that many people who use violence would be trying to make.

I think of something like the Great Terror in Stalin's time. Historians often have difficulty trying to account for why this happens – the Communist Party eating itself from the inside. From a certain point of view that was not a good idea, it weakened the party and so on. But at the end of it, Stalin was much more powerful than any of his lieutenants. So it might be [seen] as part of a struggle for power within an elite. It might be bad for them in one respect, but might be good for particular individuals.

This is distasteful to speak about because we're talking about people killing other people. But many dictators have been successful in this way. They engage in just the right amount of repression so that they consolidate their power sufficiently that they don't have to engage in continual [violence].


In the last episode, Tyrion argues that stories are the basis of legitimacy, and that we can create new stories and create new foundations for power. Do you think we can?

There's something to it for sure. But stories by themselves are not enough. The problem that revolutionaries face when they say "let's do something different" is that they can tell a nice story, but unless that story's going to resonate in a lot of different contexts, it may not be well accepted. And even if it is accepted at some level, it might be reinterpreted by the people who have something to gain from reinterpreting it.

But something like the elected monarchy that they come up with on the show, it just sounds a bit weak. These people are not just suddenly going to give up on their claims to power. The next time there is a conflict, either over the succession or for some important policy, they are not going to just give up on their claims just because of this story.

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